A student asks:
I have often heard Buddhists say that you have to give up both ‘the good and the bad’. But surely we should strive for the good and reject the bad?
Lama Shenpen answers:
You are right that we have to strive for the good and reject the bad. The question here is what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’?
We use the term ‘good’ for what is conducive to genuine and lasting happiness for both ourselves and others and in Buddhist terms this means positive karmic intentions and actions of body, speech and mind. The resulting happiness, however it manifests, is also good.
The word in Sanskrit is ‘kushula’ (‘gewa’ in Tibetan) and it might be as easily if not better translated as ‘skilful’ in the sense that if what we are wanting is happiness, it is skilful to act in a way that is conducive to happiness. So, good, in this context is not a moral judgement or badge for having kept to the rules as it were. It is ‘good’ in the sense of skilful in terms of achieving what is wholesome.
‘Bad’ is what is opposite to this. It is what is not conducive to happiness and in Buddhist terms it refers to negative karmic intentions and actions. So of course we have to give up the bad if we are to arrive at the good. The two are mutually exclusive.
So why is it sometimes said that ultimately we have to give up the good and the bad?
It means we have to give up the mind that gets attached to what it perceives as good and that reacts against what it perceives as bad. From the point of view of that kind of reactive mind, it has to learn to just relax and let whatever happens happen, without reacting. Giving up obsessively judging every experience as either good or bad.
When we can do that and be very simple with our experience, whatever arises, then instead of reacting we respond sensitively because we are open and clear about the true situation – our responses become direct and spontaneous without having to think it all out.
This is the ultimate skilful action and so is the ultimate good. Instead of thinking this is good or this is bad, we are able to respond intuitively without thinking and that is what is meant by giving up good and bad. Every experience becomes good in effect because everything we do is skilful in the sense of being conducive to happiness.
Lama Shenpen Hookham
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